POINCIANA – Just as the U.S. economy is starting to show signs of finally coming to life, so too does Keith Laytham think his very hard-hit community in Central Florida is poised for a rebound in 2012.
“Our overall theme is making Poinciana a better place to live,” said Laytham, the chairman of Poinciana Residents for Smart Change, a civic group working to improve the community of 84,000 that cuts across Polk and Osceola counties. “There’s a whole bunch of things going on that could potentially happen in 2012 that are consistent with what our objectives are.”
And one of the top priorities that the community has had for years may be at the front of the line: jobs.
Poinciana rode a housing boom in the last decade, as new homes got built as fast as every 90 days. But when the housing market crashed, the local economy took a tumble, and Poinciana got saddled with a painfully high unemployment and home foreclosure rate.
But just as the national economy is showing signs of life – a falling unemployment rate, the fewest number of Americans filing for jobless benefits in three and a half years, and improved home sales – Poinciana also has reason to think 2012 will be an improvement, starting with the fact that up to 7,000 new construction jobs are on the way.
One of them is the work that will be done building the first hospital in Poinciana. Osceola Regional Medical Center of Kissimmee is constructing that hospital, along with an emergency room facility and a Medical Arts office building. But transportation projects will also be critical, Laytham noted, including the construction of the Poinciana Parkway – a toll road that is expected to make it easier for Poinciana residents to get in and out of the community – and SunRail.
That last project, Laytham said, may link Poinciana to jobs in Orlando – and Winter Haven.
“The SunRail project was start and go, start and go, and tied up in all sorts of politics,” he said. “Then the SunRail project finally got approved by the governor.”
SunRail will be a 61-mile-long commuter rail line that runs from Volusia County to downtown Orlando, and then onto Osceola County, stopping in downtown Kissimmee and Poinciana. The Poinciana station will be at the intersection of Orange Blossom Trail and Poinciana Boulevard.
The train, Laytham said, will enable Poinciana residents to get to Orlando more easily, and not have to fight traffic on Interstate 4 to get here. But it should also help them find employment in the other direction: in Winter Haven. As Laytham noted, the state is purchasing the tracks for this rail line from CSX, which in turn is investing that money into a new factory in Winter Haven.
“Once that purchase of the tracks got put into place, that put a large infusion of cash into place for this new Winter Haven logistics facility,” he said.
CSX Corporation, based in Jacksonville, is a leading transportation company that provides rail, intermodal and rail-to-truck transload services. On Nov. 3, CSX Corporation completed the previously announced sale of the 61-mile rail corridor to the state of Florida for the SunRail project.
The commuter system is expected to begin initial operations in 2014, serving Volusia, Seminole, Orange and Osceola counties. Under the agreement, CSX retains an exclusive freight easement to operate on the SunRail line in order to continue to provide common carrier services to its existing customers.
It also enables CSX to use the money to build a CSX logistics yards, a freight transfer facility being constructed in Winter Haven, a city about 25 minutes from the Polk County side of Poinciana.
At least 7,000 jobs will be created by this transfer facility, Laytham noted, offering a great opportunity for people in Poinciana looking for work.
“That thing has always been tied into the SunRail project,” Laytham said. “Basically CSX has had in the back of its mind that they wanted to build a facility in Winter Haven. Because of the economy they had put that on the back burner. But when the time came to sell those tracks in the Orlando area to SunRail, that money gave them the ability to commit the money to the logistics yard. They are submitting the plans right now for approval to the City of Winter Haven, and the first phase of construction is expected to happen in the first half of 2012.”
One thing Poinciana Residents for Smart Change plans to do in 2012, he said, is let Poinciana residents know this facility is on the way, and get them to start thinking about getting their resumes prepared if they want to apply for one of those 7,000 jobs.
“That’s quite a bit of jobs,” he said. “What’s significant about that from Poinciana’s point of view is Winter Haven is only a half hour from the villages of Poinciana. But this is not the most heavily broadcast thing. Within Polk County, this has been a big issue. Now it looks like it’s going to happen. People here need to be aware of the fact that this thing is coming. People need to be aware that these are jobs within relatively easy commuting distance of Poinciana.”
Nick Murdock, the chairman of the Poinciana Economic Development Alliance – which is working to promote jobs and more economic development in the community – said SunRail, the Poinciana Parkway and the CSX Logistic facility will all provide Poinciana with a much needed economic boost.
Murdock also noted that he’s been nominated to serve on the Polk County Transportation Planning Organization, which is developing future transportation plans for the county.
If he gets on the board, Murdock said, he can help monitor road projects with an eye toward how they can assist Poinciana. Both Murdock and Laytham live at Solivita, on the Polk County side of Poinciana.
“Road projects do tie in with a master plan for Poinciana,” Murdock said.
In the short run, Laytham added, that means badly needed construction jobs. In the long run, he added, it means better transportation options for a community that grew very quickly in terms of residential units, but without the infrastructure needed to support all the newcomers.
Next year, he said, that problem might finally be getting addressed.
“There’s lots of exciting things that could happen in 2012,” he said.
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